Photo Basics – Composition V

In the last article, we looked at the technique of ‘leading lines’.  In this article, we’re going to concentrate on one particular use of leading lines and something that can be a by-product of leading lines.

The particular form of leading line we’re going to look at this time is the S-Curve.  Last time we concentrated on straight lines as a way to lead the viewer into and through the image.  At the end of the article I showed an image that was shot two different ways and the second method produced an S-Curve.  So let’s look at it more closely.

The S-Curve is exactly what the name suggests.  It’s a leading line that takes the viewer through the image in an S-shape.  It can be a regular or backwards S, it can be slanted, doesn’t matter.  S-Curves are in interesting way to lead a viewer to a particular object and then away from it.  The curve partitions the image into sections so care has to be taken not to cut off one section from the other and impede the viewer’s visual journey.  The curve should work to connect the two parts of the image.  The soft shape of the curve lends itself to a visual flow through the image.  The curve can be formed by many things.  In outdoor photography it will often be a path or river/creek.  A roadway can work.  Or, in winter, snow formations can work.  They could be man made as in a ski trail or naturally made as in a snow drift.

S-Curve (click for larger version)

In the image at the right, the pathway has a slight natural curve that takes the hiker (and the viewer) down the hill and into the woods.  By placing myself on the left side of the path I was able to have the path come into the image from the right side rather than in the middle.  This helps accentuate the curve and provide the partitioning balance noted above.  The slightly darker area at the bottom of the hill is a visual cue for a pause on the part of the viewer before continuing on the journey into the wooded area.


S-Curve (click for larger version)

In this next image, the natural drifting of the snow creates a curved path through the image from bottom to top.  The shadow caused by the drifting snow also creates an interesting optical illusion in that it can appear that the light is coming from the left or the right depening on how you view it.  As with the trail in the previous photo, the shadow line of the snow drift provides a meandering path through the image for the viewer.


The second concept we’re going to look at in this article is vanishing point.  This has a very specific technical definition and it goes like this:  Vanishing Point is the appearance of two parallel lines converging in the distance.  Do the lines have to be parallel?  No.  The point is, the phenomenon is an optical trick.  We see it when, for example, we’re driving on a long stretch of highway and the highway appears to come to a point at the horizon.  It’s a trick of perspective distortion that camera lenses pick up as well and we can use it in our images.  It’s a terrific way to provide a sense of depth and dimension in a flat, 2D photograph.  The converging of lines into the distance provides a way to lead the viewer through the image.  It can be seen in the first photo above of the trail through the woods.  The path doesn’t physically get narrower but it appears to narrow as it begins to lead into the wooded area.  A vanishing point is most evident in wider angle shots.  That typically means a shorter focal length lens.  It can also be used indoors to exaggerate apparent perspective.  Yes, even indoors there can be instances where a vanishing point can be used.

Vanishing Point (click for larger version)

By shooting from the end of the aisle in this cathedral and using a wide angle lens to take in the entire height of the room, I’ve been able to create a vanishing point with the pews, light fixtures and walls, all converging at the altar at the front of the room.

So those are the concepts of the S-Curve leading line and the use of a vanishing point both as a leading line and to create depth in an image.

Are you using either of these in your photography?  If so, how?  You can post some of your examples on my Facebook Page if you’d like to.









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